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Reporting speech in English

Direct and Indirect Speech

Direct and indirect speech can be a source of confusion for English learners. Let's first define the terms, then look at how to talk about what someone said, and how to convert speech from direct to indirect or vice-versa.

You can answer the question What did he say? in two ways:

  • by repeating the words spoken (direct speech)
  • by reporting the words spoken (indirect or reported speech).

Direct Speech

Direct speech repeats, or quotes, the exact words spoken. When we use direct speech in writing, we place the words spoken between quotation marks (" ") and there is no change in these words. We may be reporting something that's being said NOW (for example a telephone conversation), or telling someone later about a previous conversation.

Examples
  • She says, "What time will you be home?"
  • She said, "What time will you be home?" and I said, "I don't know! "
  • "There's a fly in my soup!" screamed Simone.
  • John said, "There's an elephant outside the window."

Indirect Speech

Reported or indirect speech is usually used to talk about the past, so we normally change the tense of the words spoken. We use reporting verbs like 'say', 'tell', 'ask', and we may use the word 'that' to introduce the reported words. Inverted commas are not used.

 

 

She said, "I saw him." (direct speech) = She said that she had seen him. (indirect speech)

'That' may be omitted:
She told him that she was happy. = She told him she was happy.

'Say' and 'tell'

Use 'say' when there is no indirect object:
He said that he was tired.

Always use 'tell' when you say who was being spoken to (i.e. with an indirect object):
He told me that he was tired.

'Talk' and 'speak'

Use these verbs to describe the action of communicating:
He talked to us.
She was speaking on the telephone.

Use these verbs with 'about' to refer to what was said:
He talked (to us) about his parents.

 

Tense Changes When Using Reported Speech

 

Resultado de imagem para Reported speech

Normally, the tense in reported speech is one tense back in time from the tense in direct speech:
She said, "I am tired." = She said that she was tired.

Phrase in Direct Speech Equivalent in Reported Speech
Simple present Simple past
"I always drink coffee", she said She said that she always drank coffee.
Present continuous Past continuous
"I am reading a book", he explained. He explained that he was reading a book
Simple past Past perfect
"Bill arrived on Saturday", he said. He said that Bill had arrived on Saturday.
Present perfect Past perfect
"I have been to Spain", he told me. He told me that he had been to Spain.
Past perfect Past perfect
"I had just turned out the light," he explained. He explained that he had just turned out the light.
Present perfect continuous Past perfect continuous
They complained, "We have been waiting for hours". They complained that they had been waiting for hours.
Past continuous Past perfect continuous
"We were living in Paris", they told me. They told me that they had been living in Paris.
Future Present conditional
"I will be in Geneva on Monday", he said. He said that he would be in Geneva on Monday.
Future continuous Conditional continuous
She said, "I'll be using the car next Friday". She said that she would be using the car next Friday.

 

You do not need to change the tense if the reporting verb is in the present, or if the original statement was about something that is still true, e.g.

  • He says he has missed the train but he'll catch the next one.
  • We explained that it is very difficult to find our house.

 

These modal verbs do not change in reported speech: might, could, would, should, ought to:

  • We explained, "It could be difficult to find our house." = We explained that it could be difficult to find our house.
  • She said, "I might bring a friend to the party." = She said that she might bring a friend to the party.

 

Changing time and place references

Time and place must often change when going from direct to reported speech.

Phrase in direct speech Equivalent in reported speech
today that day
"I saw him today", she said. She said that she had seen him that day.
yesterday the day before
"I saw him yesterday", she said. She said that she had seen him the day before.
The day before yesterday two days before
"I met her the day before yesterday", he said. He said that he had met her two days before.
Tomorrow the next/following day
"I'll see you tomorrow", he said He said that he would see me the next day.
The day after tomorrow in two days time/ two days later
"We'll come the day after tomorrow", they said. They said that they would come in two days time/ two days later.
Next week/month/year the following week/month/year
"I have an appointment next week", she said. She said that she had an appointment the following week.
Last week/month/year the previous/week/month/year
"I was on holiday last week", he told us. He told us that he had been on holiday the previous week.
ago before
"I saw her a week ago," he said. He said he had seen her a week before.
this (for time) that
"I'm getting a new car this week", she said. She said she was getting a new car that week.
this/that (adjectives) the
"Do you like this shirt?" he asked He asked if I liked the shirt.
here there
He said, "I live here". He told me he lived there.

In general, personal pronouns change to the third person singular or plural, except when the speaker reports his own words:
I/me/my/mine, you/your/yours = him/his/her/hers
we/us/our/ours, you/your/yours = they/their/theirs

 

Question Forms and Reported Speech

Word order

Normal word order is used in reported questions, that is, the subject comes before the verb, and it is not necessary to use 'do' or 'did':

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
"Where does Peter live?" She asked him where Peter lived.
"Where are you going?" She asked where I was going.
"Why is she crying?" He asked why she was crying.
Yes / no questions

This type of question is reported by using 'ask' + 'if / whether' + clause:

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
"Do you speak English?" He asked me if I spoke English.
"Are you British or American?" He asked me whether I was British or American.
"Is it raining?" She asked if it was raining.
"Have you got a computer?" He wanted to know whether I had a computer.
"Can you type?" She asked if I could type.
"Did you come by train?" He enquired whether I had come by train.
"Have you been to Bristol before?" She asked if I had been to Bristol before.
Question words

This type of question is reported by using 'ask' (or another verb like 'ask') + question word + clause. The clause contains the question, in normal word order and with the necessary tense change.

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
"What is your name?" he asked me. He asked me what my name was.
"How old is your mother?", he asked. He asked how old her mother was.
The policman said to the boy, "Where do you live?" The policeman asked the boy where he lived.
"What time does the train arrive?" she asked. She asked what time the train arrived.
"When can we have dinner?" she asked. She asked when they could have dinner.
Peter said to John, "Why are you so late?" Peter asked John why he was so late.

He said: "I like your new car." = He told her that he liked her new car.
I said: "I'm going to my friend's house." = I said that I was going to my friend's house.

 

Reporting verbs

Some reporting verbs may appear in more than one of the following groups because they can be used in several ways.

Verbs followed by "if" or "whether"
ask
know
remember
say
see
 
Verbs followed by a "that"
add
admit
agree
announce
answer
argue
boast
claim
comment
complain
confirm
consider
deny
doubt
estimate
explain
fear
feel
insist
mention
observe
persuade
propose
remark
remember
repeat
reply
report
reveal
say
state
suggest
suppose
tell
think
understand
warn
Verbs followed by either "that" or an infinitive with "to"
decide
expect
guarantee
hope
promise
swear
threaten
 
Verbs followed by a "that" clause containing should, which may be omitted, leaving a subject + zero-infinitive
advise
beg
demand
insist
prefer
propose
recommend
request
suggest
Verbs followed by a clause starting with a question word
decide
describe
discover
discuss
explain
forget
guess
imagine
know
learn
realise
remember
reveal
say
see
suggest
teach
tell
think
understand
wonder
Verbs followed by object + infinitive with "to"
advise
ask
beg
command
forbid
instruct
invite
teach
tell
warn

 

Reported Speech: orders, requests & suggestions

Reporting orders and requests

When we want to report an order or request, we can use a verb like 'tell' with a to-clause: He told me to go away. The pattern is verb + indirect object + to-clause. The indirect object is the person spoken to. Other verbs used to report orders and requests in this way are: command, order, warn, ask, advise, invite, beg, teach, & forbid.

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
The doctor said to me, "Stop smoking!". The doctor told me to stop smoking.
"Get out of the car!" said the policeman. The policeman ordered him to get out of the car.
"Could you please be quiet," she said. She asked me to be quiet.
The man with the gun said to us, "Don't move!" The man with the gun warned us not to move.
Requests for objects

Requests for objects are reported using the pattern "asked for" + object.

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
"Can I have an apple?", she asked. She asked for an apple.
"Can I have the newspaper, please?" He asked for the newspaper.
"May I have a glass of water?" he said. He asked for a glass of water.
"Sugar, please." She asked for the sugar.
"Could I have three kilos of onions?" He asked for three kilos of onions.

Suggestions

Suggestions are most often reported using the verbs suggest, insist, recommend, demand, request, and propose followed by a that clause. 'That' and 'should' are optional in these clauses, as shown in the first two examples below. Note that suggest, recommend, and propose may also be followed by a gerund in order to eliminate the indirect object (the receiver of the suggestion) and thus make the suggestion more polite. This usage of the gerund is illustrated in the fourth and fifth examples below.

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
She said, "Why don't you get a mechanic to look at the car?" She suggested that I should get a mechanic to look at the car. OR
She suggested I should get a mechanic to look at the car. OR
She suggested that I get a mechanic to look at the car.OR
She suggested I get a mechanic to look at the car.
"Why don't you go to the doctor?" he said. He suggested I go to the doctor. OR
He suggested that I go to the doctor. OR
He suggested I should go to the doctor.OR
He suggested that I should go to the doctor.
"It would be a good idea to see the dentist", said my mother. My mother suggested I see the dentist.
The dentist said, "I think you should use a different toothbrush". The dentist recommended using a different toothbrush.
You said, "I don't think you have time to see the dentist this week." You suggested postponing my visit to the dentist.
I said, "I don't think you should see the dentist this week." I suggested postponing your visit to the dentist.
My manager said, "I think we should examine the budget carefully at this meeting." My manager proposed that we examine the budget carefully at the meeting.
"Why don't you sleep overnight at my house?" she said. She suggested that I sleep overnight at her house.

 

Reported speech: hopes, intentions, & promises

Reporting hopes, intentions, and promises

When we report an intention, hope or promise, we use an appropriate reporting verb followed by a 'that' clause with 'would' in it, or a to-infinitive clause. Verbs used in this pattern include: hope, promise, threaten, guarantee, & swear. Note that the word 'that' is optional when using a that clause, as in the first example below.

Examples
Direct speech Indirect speech
"I'll pay you the money tomorrow," he said. He promised to pay me the money the next day. OR
He promised that he would pay me the money the next day. OR
He promised he would pay me the money the next day.
"I'll be back by lunchtime," he said. He promised to be back by lunchtime. OR
He promised that he would be back by lunchtime.
"We should arrive in London before nightfall," they said. They hoped to arrive in London before nightfall. OR
They hoped they would arrive in London before nightfall.
"Give me the keys to the safe or I'll shoot you!" he shouted. He threatened to shoot me if I didn't give him the keys to the safe. OR
He threatened that he would shoot me if I didn't give him the keys to the safe.
"I will not tell anyone your secret" he said. He swore that he would not tell anyone my secret. OR
He swore not to tell anyone my secret.